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From confidant to prevention advocate, CPHHS alumna creates sexual violence awareness program for the US Forest Service

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In an effort to pay for college and protect her community by working as a wildland firefighter, Aili Johnston, CPHHS ’13 alumna, never thought her summer job would quickly turn into a career as a sexual violence prevention educator.

During her first five summers working for the US Forest Service (USFS) as a seasonal wildland firefighter, Aili, one of only a few women firefighters on her hand crew, says she became a confidant for three women involved in three separate sexual assaults perpetrated by coworkers off hours in government housing.

When she realized she had no idea of how to be helpful in these situations, she sought help herself.

Blair Freitas and Aili (right) in Alaska on a dispatch after a long, hard day of work. Aili and Blair were on a saw team together and had a good, strong professional relationship.

Blair Freitas and Aili (right) in Alaska on a dispatch after a long, hard day of work. Aili and Blair were on a saw team together and had a good, strong professional relationship.

“I didn’t know how to respond or support the survivor when they told me of the incident,” she says. “I didn’t know whom to contact within the USFS for help. I had no idea that there are many external resources to help survivors. I didn’t know what the state laws or the USFS policies were regarding this issue. I was tired of feeling helpless and wanted to bring awareness of this topic to everyone.”

She took matters into her own hands, and with the help of a health program planning class she completed during her senior year studying Public Health at Oregon State, she gained the confidence and skills needed to create a public health program addressing sexual violence for the USFS.

“I became passionate about this topic when I saw how effected these young women were who confided in me,” she says. “I felt compelled to say and do something, and to stand up for those who can’t do so for themselves.”

The class required Aili to write a paper, complete a poster presentation describing her program and the public health model it was based on, make a needs assessment, determine intervention strategies, develop a budget, identify resources and market the program.

“I was tired of feeling helpless and wanted to bring awareness of this topic to everyone.”

She also completed a health field experience practicum with the USFS, where she developed her first sexual violence awareness and education program.

“OSU was my foundation for this program,” she says. “My senior classes were crucial for its development. Using the skills I learned, I branched out from school to the USFS and started making a difference in the area I am passionate about.”

Now a government contractor for Region 6 – Oregon and Washington – Aili created a business, Willamette Public Health Consulting LLC, and has already administered her program, Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education (SHAPE), to more than 1,000 USFS employees since its implementation in June 2013. She hopes to continue reaching more employees around the region and eventually develop a nationwide program for the USFS.

She credits the USFS for its support.

“The USFS is a family, and as such they take care of their people and look out for one another,” she says. “This is why the USFS has hired me to bring awareness about this topic to their employees – because they care. Sexual assault and sexual harassment can be found in any work place or occupation. Sexual violence affects and infiltrates all communities, not just one. Although I was a firefighter and had these experiences, this does not mean that this is only happening to firefighters in the USFS.

“The USFS has wonderful people who work hard to create healthy forests and fun places for the public to visit,” she says. “Firefighters go weeks without seeing their families to help other families and communities in times of need; they are heroes. Yes, sexual assault happens in the USFS, but they are doing something about it. They are trying to bring awareness and response to this important topic.”

Aili’s trainings cover topics including sexual violence statistics, resources, defining consent, state rape laws, USFS policy, how to support a survivor and bystander intervention.

With about a dozen trainings each year in June, Aili is looking to expand her team by hiring an employee for 2016 and setting up an internship opportunity with Oregon State.